The Encounter, Part 3
“Damn” Rhu’kin cursed over the comms “I’m not picking up a transponder but that’s clearly wreckage from a Recon. I sure hope she was able to eject…”.
Rhu’kin and his squadron had throttled down a few hundred kilometers from a strange rock cluster in what was otherwise the middle of nowhere. Ship sensors had detected an anomaly and wreckage a few minutes earlier, and the flight computers had just completed a full data analysis. The results were chilling. “That cluster’s not normal” Jak Somtaaw replied “and I would know”.
Jak, aka “Hauler”, was one of only a handful of Kiith Somtaaw in the Fists of Heaven. He had attended civil flight school in Kharak, and after graduating at eighteen he’d immediately gained a position captaining a heavy cargo hauler, shuttling supplies and equipment from Kharak up to the orbital scaffolding. Sandy haired, tall, and lanky, his experience and exemplary safety record meant he was selected to undertake the journey to Hiigara as a resource collector pilot after the Mothership’s construction had been completed six years later.
During a resupply stop in what became known as the Gardens of Kadesh, he’d been calmly collecting the nebula’s resources, when, unbeknownst to him, negotiations with the area’s indigenous population had broken down. Minutes after things went sideways, a closely grouped pack of hostile strike craft suddenly appeared on Jak’s sensors. He, a handful of fellow collectors, and a resource controller suddenly found themselves under imminent attack, over a thousand kilometers from the nearest reinforcements. Noting the enemy’s compact formation, Jak suddenly had an idea. Ordering the rest of the resource collection team to full burn towards friendly forces, Jak did the opposite, punching the throttle and frantically maneuvering his collector so that he was ‘behind’ an especially dense dust cloud relative to the incoming enemy craft. The dust cloud, he’d noticed earlier, was so dense that it rendered sensor readings incredibly inaccurate, which he hoped would give his desperate plan a one-in-a-million rather than a zero percent chance of success. As he’d hoped, the enemy strike craft wing vectored towards him rather than immediately pursuing the rest of the collection operation. Jak quickly unstrapped himself from the pilot seat and ran down the corridor to the airlock where the emergency pressure suits were stored. As soon as he had donned the suit and the safety verification light read green, he turned and jogged back to the cockpit. He then ordered the collector into a lopsided spin, orienting the ship’s axis so that the collector’s long, tubular body would cover as much area in 3-D space as possible. Hoping against hope, he made his way to the airlock as the vessel picked up rotational velocity, then cycled the hatch and ejected himself into space.
Unbeknownst to Jak, negotiations with the area’s indigenous population had broken down…
Jak used his suit’s thrusters to put several thousand meters between him and the collector while hoping his desperate gamble would pay off. It did: confident their prey was defenseless, the enemy strike craft wing entered the dust cloud. With their sensors blinded, the Kadeshi’s fast-moving attack pattern ran directly into the resource collector which had now become a rapidly spinning blur, partially obscured by the dust cloud. Impact came seconds later: the long body of the collector tore through the tight formation of fighters, immediately destroying several and destabilizing the trajectories of others, causing them to veer off course. The resulting collisions and explosions of dying Kadeshi ships destroyed their adjacent counterparts, and, when the resource collector was ripped apart a few moments later, the resulting detonation wiped out the few remaining enemy ships. Kushan scouts later determined that Jak had single-handedly destroyed approximately twenty Kadeshi swarmers with a non-combat vessel. “When do I get to do that again?” he’d replied with a grin when rescued after radioing in the all-clear. The Fists of Heavens had an answer for him: “right after a crash-course in multi-world survival and combat piloting”. Fifteen years later, Jak still considered himself a miner at heart, but no one else did. “Jak is incredibly cool under pressure, and even more, he’s resourceful” Rhu’kin had annotated in Jak’s file after their first combat sortie together “He’s never let emotion get the better of him, and he’s fantastic at using what’s at hand to either wreak havoc, or save our butts. When it hits the fan and you need a way out, Jak’s a guy that can find you one.”
“I’ll admit it’s a bit lonely” Rhu’kin said “but what exactly do you mean by ‘not normal’?” “It’s too isolated” Jak replied over the comms, his voice accompanied by a background hiss that hadn’t been there earlier “asteroids have to come from something. For those rocks to be out here like this, with no nebula or other celestial bodies nearby means that they were brought here, and I don’t mean by the Maker”. “Well, you Somtaaw know your rocks, and I bet that explains why Snowgirl would have wanted to investigate all of this more closely. Anyway, this is our stop, so let’s do it. Pay attention and let’s keep a little room to maneuver going in”. “Aye” confirmed all voices but one: a firm “Hold!” rang clearly over the chorus of affirmations. When Aiir “Manifesto” S’Jet spoke, everyone listened – and it wasn’t just because he was usually quiet.
When Aiir “Manifesto” S’Jet spoke, everyone listened – and it wasn’t just because he was usually quiet.
Before joining the Fists of Heaven, Aiir was a communications and cryptographic specialist in the navy’s counterintelligence division during the journey to Hiigara. Aiir was tall with dark hair, dark eyes and light skin, with the quiet demeanor befitting an intelligence specialist. He’d been installing new scrambling hardware onboard the destroyer Memory of Kharak during a stop in the Galactic Core, when Captain Elson had appeared out of hyperspace and defected. In the scramble to defend the Captain, there hadn’t been time for Aiir to return to the mothership. Located closest to the Captain’s hyperspace exit, the Memory of Kharak initially lead the defense and subsequently came under heavy fire. Suffering damage to proximity sensors, port maneuvering thrusters and one of the engine cones, the destroyer fell back behind the front lines for emergency repairs. Minutes later a Taiidan frigate accompanied by a group of salvage corvettes was able to approach undetected and latch on to the hull, and the Destroyer was boarded without warning. In an effort to prevent loss of life on an already compromised vessel, the captain ordered a full surrender. Shortly after the enemy breach, Aiir had been monitoring several shipboard cameras, and after receiving the order to surrender, had requested all of the marines on on his current deck to meet him at the communications relay he’d been working on. When they’d gathered, Aiir quickly explained his plan for escape. Following his instructions, a few of the marines feigned injury while others provided ‘assistance’ to their supposedly injured shipmates. The ruse worked: after Aiir and the marines were captured by the boarding party, they were placed under light guard, as the Taiidan security forces believed that their prisoners were indeed injured. Then, as the Kushan prisoners were being led to holding cells in the brig of the Taiidani frigate, Aiir gave the signal to the marines, who made their move. In seconds, their captors were overpowered and unconscious. Aiir then rushed to a nearby terminal and attempted to gain access to the ship’s computer, hoping to override the door locks so that he and the marines could reach the escape pods. The terminal required biometric authentication, so, pulling out his combat knife, Aiir turned to the nearest unconscious guard, slit his throat and cut out his eye, which he extracted from the skull and placed in front of the biometric reader. Properly authenticated, Aiir was able to not only override the lock, but as the ordnance aboard the frigate had been physically armed, he was able to program a detonation sequence by hacking the guidance systems so that the missiles falsely ‘thought’ they had been launched. Turning back towards the marines and oblivious to their shock at his actions, he said “ten minutes”, and began jogging down the corridor towards the nearest escape hatch. Still in stunned silence, they followed without question. Two minutes later Aiir and the marines had safely jettisoned from the frigate and were en route to the rest of the Kushan fleet. “Watch” Aiir said, pointing to the frigate through the escape pod’s observation screen. Eight minutes later, plumes of flame and shrapnel appeared from the frigate’s belly as her armament hold exploded. Shaking their heads in wonder, the marines stared in awed silence. Aiir gazed at the frigate, his face a wolfish grin “A faster way to go than they deserve, but at least we got them” was all he said, as he watched the critically damaged frigate slowly list to port, spewing flames and hull plating into space.
Once the news of Captain Elson’s defection had died down, the FoH had approached Aiir and presented him with an opportunity he could not refuse: an offer to inflict maximum harm to the Taiidan, no matter the risk. He’d accepted with a solemn nod, and after a crash combat piloting course, he’d become an active duty FoH officer and instructor, teaching the squadron advanced communication and cryptographic techniques. “Aiir S’jet is an engineering genius” Rhu’kin had annotated in his personnel file “he’s calm, shrewd, and technically unstoppable. He’s gotten us into and out of situations that simply wouldn’t have been possible without his knowledge and expertise – and the result is always more destruction wrought on the Taiidan. And that’s what we’re all about: getting the job done, and with maximum Taiidani casualties in the process”.
The Memory of Kharak: The first Taiidan destroyer captured during the journey to Hiigara, named in honor of a planet laid to waste by the Imperials, as punishment for a supposed crime committed 4,000 years prior.
“I just picked up an encrypted, narrow-band burst” Aiir said tersely over the comms “it’s Imperial Taiidan, and not one of their usual ciphers. It would take me longer than we have to crack it, but there’s something going on here that they really don’t want anyone knowing about”. “Good work Manifesto. Why didn’t any of us catch it?” Rhu’kin replied. “I made some…uh…modifications to my onboard avionics that I didn’t want the Somtaaw knowing about. To you guys, it was probably just background static.” Rhu’kin grinned ruefully “looks like your mods paid off. Well, now we know the Imperials are involved, and if there’s one thing we’re good at…”. He didn’t need to complete his sentence: everyone in the Fists of Heaven lived for one primary purpose: to kill Taiidan. “Alright, let’s do this the smart way. Reaper, you’re with me, and we’ll head down the near side here. Hauler, Wrathbringer, you guys flank the opposite side. Manifesto, you stay put and see if you can get us any more intelligence. Keep an eye on our six, but be ready to provide backup. Got that? Keep a bit of elbow room, and let’s do it.”
“See anything up there?” Rhu’kin asked Anenchka, who was behind and ‘above’ him. “No, sir” she replied “just looks like…well, rocks, sir”. “Same here” said Saaman, as he cast a sharp eye over the asteroid cluster. Aiir came over the comms: “Guys, I got something here…” but was cut off by a sharp “LOCK ALARM!” from Jak. “Damn, it’s real close” he said, his voice tight, touched with a hint of resignation “I’m going to try to break it onto the rock in front of me, hang on…” “Sonofabitch!!” Saamaan swore “Hauler, punch out if you have to!” “I don’t think it would make a difference at this range, I gotta evade…” his voice trailing off as he concentrated fully on evasive maneuvers.
My upgraded hardware and AI had calculated the trajectory and point of impact…and that’s how I knew Jak wasn’t going to make it.
One of the modifications I’ve made to the Somtaaw’s admittedly incredible new heavy fighters is add additional processing power to the sensors system for my self-coded AI, and interface everything into a custom HUD. It’s still a prototype and I haven’t gotten all the kinks worked out, but it was operating better than I expected. And that’s how I knew Jak wasn’t going to make it. Faster than I could blink, the computer had calculated the missile’s trajectory and speed, compared it to Jak’s trajectory and speed, and had plotted the point of impact, approximately two hundred meters in front of the closest asteroid. Luckily for him, I’d brought along an experiment of mine. Ever since my temporary capture by Taiidan forces fifteen years ago, I’ve become very interested in interfering with ordnance systems. I’ve been slowly making progress on a jammer that I hope will make our ships much less susceptible to guided missiles and torpedos, and I installed my pieced-together, jury-rigged prototype onboard recently just in case I got a chance to test it out. It paid off: my upgraded sensor package and computer fed the results into my jammer, and, milliseconds later, the jammer emitted the appropriate high-energy, narrow-band signal and the missile went silent. Even more exciting, the computer’s AI had identified the launcher, and in tandem with the jammer, had preemptively shut down the rest of the missiles in their tubes. Sometimes I amaze myself. However, I’m not sure how long my prototype is going to hold up to maneuvers at combat speed, because unfortunately I didn’t have time to mount it as securely as I would I have liked.
Jak knew at this range, shaking the warhead off his tail was going to be long odds, but it wasn’t his first time in a tight spot. Plus, the Fists of Heaven didn’t give up without a fight. Preparing for a violent ‘downward’ J-turn around the closest asteroid that would definitely render him unconscious from the G-force, he muttered a quick prayer to the Maker as the lock alarm blared more rapidly, indicating the missile was closing distance. Then, a second before he would have initiated his last ditch effort, the alarm went silent. In confusion, Jak said aloud “wait, what?” “Did it go dud?” Aiir asked over the comms, his tone a combination of apprehension and excitement. “Yeah, holy mother of the Maker, it did – did you do that?!” “Man I’m good” came the response “and lucky that I am, there were another half dozen ready to launch on you guys”. “What the hell – from where?” Rhu’kin said “I don’t see anything and neither do the sensors!” “There’s a SAM launcher on the center ‘roid” Aiir responded. “Yeah, I got eyes on it” Samaan said “the damned thing literally just popped out of the rock! It’s gotta be sensor cloaked, too, because the ship still isn’t seeing it” “Yep, I got eyes on it too now” Jak chimed in “it’s on the far side relative to your position, Reaper. Thanks for saving my ass, Manifesto, I owe you a drink.” “If you’re only worth one drink, remind me not to waste all that time secretly installing custom avionics and ordnance interference equipment…” came the response. “Alright, we’ll make it two – it’ll be a regular party!” “You guys are a riot, but let’s save the celebrating for when we bring Snowgirl back in” said Rhu’kin. Aiir responded over the comms “By the way, whoever’s down there…they definitely know we’re here now if they didn’t earlier…so what’s the plan?”